When we lived in Wichita, Dr. Ron Brown was our physician. Now Ron was member of the church Diane and I grew up in, so he was also a longtime friend. Several years ago, during a routine annual physical, Ron found a little glitch with my blood pressure, which had always been really good, but in the previous couple of doctor visits, my blood pressure had pushed the upper limits of `good.’
“Blood pressures’ still a little high,” Ron says, as he’s updating my file on his laptop. “Try cutting down on the salt,” he recommends.
“You mean I’ve gotta start eating my French fries without salt?” I ask.
And Ron looked at me over his glasses: “Cut out the French fries,” he says.
“But doc,” says I, “How can I enjoy my quarter-pounder without fries?”
Now Ron swivels on his stool to face me, “Nix on the quarter- pounders.”
I guess it’s true what they say: a little salt goes a long way. Problem is, of course, that we Americans eat way more than we need: about four pounds a year per person, in small doses. We’ve acquired an insatiable taste for salt in the US.
As I’m sure you know, the salt industry has a long history in Syracuse. A history that began when Jesuit missionaries visiting the region in 1654 discovered salty brine springs at the southern end of Onondaga Lake. By the 19th century, the majority of all the salt used in the U.S. came from Syracuse. Syracuse is still called “The Salt City” today.
So, I started wondering, what is it that’s so special, so alluring about salt? There seems to be something deep within us that resonates with the element of salt.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that salt – sodium-chloride ions – were present in the waters of creation; the briny stew from which the prehistoric antecedents of our species arose. Therefore, salt is one of the most essential elements needed for the preservation of human life. The human body contains many salts, sodium chloride being the major one; making up about 0.4% of one’s body weight (a concentration pretty much equivalent with seawater).
In the proper amounts salt ensures good bodily function, good water absorption; and for those of you who have ever suffered dehydration, you know that sodium is crucial for keeping the body’s electrolytes in balance, which is, in turn, critical to our overall health and wellbeing.
But our romance with salt is more than just a physical attraction. Salt also holds a prominent place in nearly every major world religion.
For example, in the native Japanese religion of Shinto, salt is used in purification rites for Sumo wrestlers. The Hindus use it in wedding and housewarming ceremonies. Celtic tradition employs salt in the consecration rite of a new church, as well as in exorcisms. And it’s still often part of the religious custom in Catholicism to add salt to holy water.
There seems to be an ontological – that is having to do with the nature of our existence – correlation between the element of salt and the essence of human being; physically, psychologically and, yes, even spiritually.
If you delve into the depths of Holy Scripture you’ll find that thirty-five verses of the Hebrew Bible mentions salt; the earliest being the story of Lot’s wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt upon looking back at Sodom and Gomorrah. And it’s prominent in at least six verses of the New Testament, lastly as the Apostle Paul encourages the church in Colossae, to “let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt”; which I think is an obvious reference to Jesus’ own exhortation for his disciples to “have salt in yourselves” [Mk 9:50], or his christening the disciples as “the salt of the earth” [Mt. 5:13]
Salt. Such an ordinary element; found in abundance nearly anywhere in the world.
And yet so crucial, so essential to life.
So, what, exactly, does it mean to be `seasoned by salt’?
It’s interesting that Jesus uses this phrase as sort of a `benediction’ to a rather cautionary chastisement concerning graphic self-mutilation that, no doubt, leaves the disciples reeling—implying that it’s better to walk around in this world without those various offending members, than it is for the whole body to be cast into hell.
Then, perhaps as a way of – at least partially – relieving the distress he just inflicted upon his listeners, Jesus offers a little comfort food by referring to that most common of elements of salt as a prescriptive measure.
“For everyone will be salted with fire,” Jesus says.
Which doesn’t really sound all that great on the face of it; but then Jesus goes on to reassure that, “Salt is good . . .”
Salt is good. Salt is a natural preservative; keeps those foods that give us sustenance from spoiling. And if you’ve ever soaked those sore muscles in an Epsom salt bath, you know how soothing and healing it can be. And, though it burns like hell, a salt solution can be used to cleanse and purify a gaping wound without damaging the surrounding healthy tissue.
And, as we said before, the proper amounts of salt in the body – whether we’re talking about the human body or the Body that is Christ in the world (the Church) – are necessary to maintain balance, equilibrium, fluidity, energy, mental acuity, and vitality.
“Salt is good,” says Jesus. `So be sure to have some salt in you.’ Because, as you know, when you’re short on salt, it throws the whole system out of whack.
`Have salt,’ says Jesus. ‘And be at peace with one another.’
When we gather together as we are for worship today, we are, essentially, replenishing our salt. We are presenting our wounded hearts to the Spirit for healing, refinement and purification. We are laying bare the sins of our soul to be washed clean, soothed, refreshed and renewed.
Salt is good. Salt is elemental. Salt realigns us with creation and with our Creator. Salt reawakens us to our own true essence, even as we immerse ourselves in the Spirit of God as we are this morning.
Anthony de Mello (1931 – 1987), an East Indian Jesuit priest, was renowned for his storytelling that drew from both Eastern and Western mystical traditions. One of his stories, “The Salt Doll,” illustrates this point:
“A salt doll journeyed for thousands of miles over land, until it finally came to the sea. It was fascinated by this strange moving mass, quite unlike anything it had ever seen before.
“Who are you?” said the salt doll to the sea.
The sea smilingly replied, “Come in and see.”
So the doll waded in. The farther it walked into the sea the more it dissolved, until there was only very little of it left. Before that last bit dissolved, the doll exclaimed in wonder, “Now I know what I am!””[i]
“Salt is good,” Jesus says, and then adds, “But if salt has lost its saltiness, how can one season it?”
It’s a rhetorical question, of course, the answer being, “One cannot.”
But what is entirely impossible for us, is immanently possible for God.
‘Have salt in you,’ says Jesus – with the further implication being – `for you are called to be the “salt of the earth.”’
In today’s scripture – as he so often does – Jesus lays some very tough demands on some very ordinary folks; folks who were probably following him around just hoping to find a little comfort and healing and help from Jesus. Only to suddenly find out just what sort of help, comfort and healing Jesus expects from them.[ii]
In her book, Holy the Firm, Anne Dillard writes: “A blur of romance clings to our notion of these people in the Bible. As though, of course, God should come to these simple folks, these Sunday school watercolor figures who are so purely themselves. While we now are complex and full at heart. We are busy, so I seem somehow worthy.”
“`Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord?’ There is no one but us. There is no one to send nor a pure heart on the face of the earth but only us. A generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, but there is no one but us, there never has been. There are generations which remembered, and generations which forgot. There has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day. There is no one but us.”[iii]
Like so many ordinary grains of salt, Jesus gathers us up together because he has some things he wants to get done in the world, and he cannot do it without a group to work with him…within him…through him!
That’s what Jesus has in mind for his disciples. For us.
You know, it’s funny; when Jesus uses an analogy to describe his disciples, he doesn’t say, `You are a band of angels descending gloriously upon the earth,’ or `You are a great army marching into the world.’[iv]
He simply says `You are salt’. Or `You are light.’
Basic, everyday, easy to access – and yet infinitely necessary – elements of life. Small, fragile, ordinary. Essential.
And yet a little salt, like a little light, can go a long way.
Not in big dramatic ways. Not by drawing a lot of attention to itself. But simply by bringing its own unique character into whatever situation it finds itself.
Just by being God’s salt of the earth through Christ Jesus. It’s true. I’ve seen you do it.
I’ve seen you embrace a refugee family who has escaped persecution and peril to make a better life for themselves in this great nation of ours. I’ve seen you go out of your way to care for the wayward child that everyone else had given up on. I’ve heard you tell your husband how special he is when he had given up on himself. I’ve seen you spend long, late hours with a friend as she waited for her husband to get through a major surgery. I’ve seen you join hearts and hands to pray and pray and pray for a struggling infant.
You become that essential substance which brings back the savor of hope for someone whose life has become bitter or bland.
Deposited there by God…you blend in…you spread out…you permeate.
You add that unique, irreplaceable seasoning to situations and to the world that does so much more than just add flavor.
It preserves the quality of life from imminent and ultimate decay.
It protects against the relentless corrosions of the world.
It provides a safe haven for keeping that deep repository of faith and hope and love fresh and new.
You are the salt of the earth.
It’s not easy thing to be. It’s never been easy.
But it is who you were created – from the foundations of the earth – to be.
You. Only you can bring the holy character of God’s love to this world.
For you are the salt of the earth. So, remember, to have salt in you.
And be at peace with one another. In Jesus Christ.
(*Grateful acknowledgement to William Willimon for much inspiration and some content.)
[i] Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, Image: 1984, p. 98.
[ii] Willian Willimon, “Salt and Light,” Pulpit Resource
[iii] Anne Dillard, Holy the Firm, HarperCollins, 1988.
[iv] Ibid. Willimon.